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The Architectural Evolution of New York City

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New York has evolved its architectural language to reflect its changing needs and this reciprocal influence with the world. From downtown to uptown, the city reflects inspirations from places near and far: Both the 19th century Custom House and the 21st century High Line, for example, owe a debt to Paris. (Their architects drew inspiration from the Beaux-Arts Paris Opera and the reclaimed Promenade Plantée, respectively.)

Over time, New York City has amassed a wealth of architectural landmarks that have innovated, broken barriers and established precedents for subsequent generations, creating a kind of civic dialogue with other world capitals.

Early 1800s: Island forts to commercial streets

Castle Clinton is one of New York’s oldest buildings with significance to the development of the city — and the United States. This circular sandstone fort was built in 1811 on a small artificial island created to defend what was then the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. From 1855 to 1890, Castle Clinton became the world’s first immigrant depot, receiving over 8 million immigrants, decades before Ellis Island assumed that role.

Castle Clinton at Battery Park in present day

The southern tip of Manhattan and its harbor helped spur the development of the modern city. The new architecture of the era did its best to rival Europe’s by displaying decorative classical architectural details and elaborate sculptures — such as on the Custom House of 1899 (now the National Museum of the American Indian).

As commerce proliferated, lower Manhattan grew from old counting houses to taller buildings. Broadway, originally a path used by Native Americans and later by Dutch traders to connect New Amsterdam with Albany, went from a street wide enough for wagons and stagecoaches to a fashionable residential address.

But as commerce invaded Broadway, it pushed the city’s affluent mercantile population northward, leaving this famous avenue as the city’s primary business thoroughfare — a scene that repeated itself for the next century, expanding and redeveloping the city one neighborhood at a time.

Late 1800s: Lower East Side tenements to high-rise residences

By the end of the 19th century, the Lower East Side was the densest area in the world, with immigrants crammed in wherever they could, living without sunlight, plumbing or sanitation. The dire conditions began to change when journalist and reformer Jacob Riis documented the living situation through his photography. His work helped lead to significant housing reforms in the early 20th century.

The city’s chaotic, fast-paced and unprecedented development at this time led to the first citywide zoning code in the U.S. These reforms — along with game changers like the elevator, electricity and new materials — helped set the stage for the high-rise building and the city’s iconic urban grid. The high-rise trend started in 1884, with apartment buildings like the luxurious Dakota on the then-sparsely populated Upper West Side.

The Dakota: built in 1884 on the Upper West Side

Downtown, things were changing, too. In 1902, the city welcomed one of its most significant structures: The Flatiron Building. The narrow 20-story-tall structure, resembling a classical tripartite Greek column, is now considered one of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers.

During this time, the city boomed as a cultural and commercial capital, enjoying an urban renaissance inspired by London, Paris and other European capitals. Many of New York City’s defining structures rose during this transformative era.

1900s – 2000s: Landmark cultural centers to glistening glass towers

As the railroad made its way underground, New York put to better use the valuable street-level space left behind for fashionable urban projects like Grand Central Terminal, with its accompanying luxury hotel, The Barclay — now the InterContinental New York Barclay.

This urban renewal included projects like Rockefeller Center, with its Radio City Music Hall, and Lincoln Center, which took the city to new heights both architecturally and culturally. Meanwhile, Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum — with its white, curved inverted ziggurat — advanced New York’s architectural language by creating a structure that both stood out and blended with the built and natural environment.

Many of New York’s tallest skyscrapers — now global icons — were built during this period. The address known as 40 Wall Street became the tallest building in the world when completed in 1930 — a title it held for only a few weeks. That same year, Walter Chrysler unveiled his Art Deco architectural icon, the Chrysler Building, which surpassed 40 Wall Street, only to be outdone by the Empire State Building, which held the title of tallest building in the world for almost four decades.

This high-rise trend continues to this day as New York City vies with Shanghai, Singapore and other world capitals to build glistening glass towers like 432 Park Avenue condominium — the tallest residential building in the world. But the city is not only pushing up; it is also reinventing its urban spaces through new landmarks like the High Line.

The High Line

For New York, the evolution continues.

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The Architectural Evolution of New York City

New York has evolved its architectural language to reflect its changing needs and this reciprocal influence with the world.